Wednesday and Thursday there were nationwide strikes and demonstrations in Athens. The local news is flush with photographs of street battles between police and demonstrators, the underlying stories filled with details about black-masked, gasoline bomb-throwing rioters and air thick with tear gas “sending Christmas shoppers fleeing…” (Athens News.)
Although recent Athens Local Flavor blog posts I’ve written address the usual magic of Christmas in Athens, this Christmas is a bitter time for many Athenians who are angry with extreme money-pinching measures taken by elected officials, such as slashing salaries, pension cuts, massive layoffs and substantial increases in taxes. The unemployment rate has reached 12% and is as high as 30% in the 18-30 year-old age demographic: this is according to an article I read in Athens Plus, an excellent English speaking newspaper that folded earlier this month along with a number of other Greek publications, upscale restaurants, and countless small businesses. The bleak outlook for the young and educated in Greece, the infuriated working class who are feeling the deepest cuts: the fuse has been lit in a people famously distrustful of government even in the best of
How this is affecting travelers: Demonstrations in Athens march to a strangely regular beat. They can very often be avoided by staying clear of the square in front of Parliament, Syntagma, and areas like Exarcheia, the neighborhood around the Archaeological Museum and the Polytechnic University, where intellectual activists boil and brood en masse. Transportation, should it engage in the strike, will usually announce what hours they’re not operating and two other modes of transit will work as usual- i.e. if the bus is on strike, the metro and tram will run. The last few days, however, all methods of transportation are on strike and traffic is gridlocked with an excess of cars and taxis. If travelers have not booked private transportation, they are looking to book a ticket out of the city and possibly stuck at Eleftherios Venizelos Airport.
My best advice to those who are there trying to make the most of their situation:
Stay out of the mess. The restaurant owner of Melilotos, stationed just behind Syntagma, reports that she arrives to work with watery, red eyes because of the tear gas in the air. Keep to the tourist areas of Plaka and Monastiraki where the souvenir shops and street musicians provide a more amiable hullabaloo.
Talk to the locals. Not the angry, rioting ones, but the shop owners, elders, and hoteliers who are affected by this situation. Do it for yourself to get a relevant lesson on a subject that seems foreign to you. Do it for them because they want to express themselves. You represent an outlet, a way to get the message overseas that they’re unhappy.
Try and make it to the Acropolis. Maybe it sounds silly, but it’s a sacred place. It represents another inspiring age where the free thinking society was victorious against tyranny in spite of towering odds. Should the area be blocked, or closed, or if the passage looks perilous, go to one of the countless roof gardens of hotels or restaurants and stare at it from there. One of my favorite views is from the second floor of the old Abyssinias Cafe in Abyssinias Square, where you can also order some soothing tea or small dishes called meze. Another is the third level of the New Acropolis Museum, a sometime sanctuary from the surrounding chaos (yes, that’s a Greek word.) Hopefully the employees aren’t on strike.
Lastly, a note to those who have plans to travel to Athens in the future: The country is going through tough times but it has been through tougher. The occasional, violent outbreaks, typically reserved for fights between rioters and authority, rarely involve travelers. This sort of political unrest swells through the winter, but as the weather warms up, things tend to calm down. Booking a private tour is a good way to ensure having a local ally and mobility to move around unaffected areas. Stay tuned to this blog for a post on some of the most reputable tour providers in Athens.
Feature image courtesy of Piazza del Popolo via Flickr